The Disappearance: Book 1 of The Rift Chronicles
PART ONE — TOM
Tom pushed his wheelchair up the incline of the bridge and coasted to the railing around the old carousel. His sister, Jessie, stepped onto the platform and climbed on the back of a large, black cat sandwiched between two colorful horses. Tom didn’t recall ever seeing the cat before. Maybe they swapped it in during the renovation.
The calliope music started, playing an old-fashioned circus tune, and Jessie circled around. She was hard to miss—at nearly fourteen, she was the oldest kid on the carousel. Tom was glad he’d convinced her to ride, despite his earlier misgivings, especially when Jessie’s smile told him her mood had improved.
He looked behind him. His parents were still talking with friends. When he turned back, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled again, and the eerie feeling that something wasn’t right returned. The carousel seemed to be spinning faster as Jessie came into view. On her next pass, she waved and reached for the brass ring at the end of the mechanical arm.
Then she disappeared. The black cat circled without her.
Tom stared at the whirling animals. The riderless cat came into view again and passed by. Pushing up in his chair, Tom tried to see over the crowd. One more pass, and the carousel engine slowed and stopped. Children filed out through the gate, but Jessie wasn’t with them.
She couldn’t have just vanished. Tom wove his chair through the oncoming children and their parents, circling the carousel. Not finding his sister, he headed back.
Maybe she slipped by me and joined Mom and Dad. Tom rolled up the path, until he saw something sparkling on the ground. Leaning over, he retrieved a silver and crystal necklace. His heart sank. It was the necklace Jessie always wore.
The police asked hundreds of questions, most directed at Tom, because he was the last—no, the only—person to see Jessie before she vanished. They didn’t believe his story that she was there one second and gone the next—that he’d watched her disappear.
“You’re a little old to be coming to a kids’ night,” the officer said. It wasn’t a question.
Tom tried to hide his discomfort. “We always come to the zoo on Halloween. We’ve done it since we were kids. Jessie wanted to go, and she convinced me.”
“You didn’t want to come?” The officer’s even tone made it hard to know what he was getting at.
“Not really. I had a paper due on Monday, and I told her Halloween was for little kids.”
“But you came anyway.”
The questioning continued for nearly an hour. When Tom and his parents left the zoo, the police told the press that Jessie had probably been abducted.
That’s not true. I watched her disappear. But people don’t just vanish. Maybe she fell when she reached for the brass ring. But then we would have found her body …
His mom came unglued. His dad was stoic, as usual. After they got home, his father gave him a hug before taking his wife to bed.
Tom’s mind raced on into the early hours of the morning, replaying events from the zoo, trying to figure out what could have happened—any plausible explanation. When he came up with nothing, his thoughts wandered back to when the evening began.
Jessie stood in the doorway of his room. He hadn’t needed to look up from his computer to know she was pouting.
“Tom, you have to come. We always go together. Besides, since you started high school, I don’t see you very much. I actually kinda miss you.” She grimaced and rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe I said that.”
He tried to stop it, but a tiny smile curled his lip. “Yeah, well, I miss you more.” That had always been their joke.
He resumed typing. “Jessie, we’re too old to go to Halloween at the zoo.”
“Nobody’s too old for Halloween. It’s only once a year, Tom.” She walked in and flopped on his bed. “Besides, Dad got the night off. You know how hard it is for him to do that on Halloween.”
He didn’t budge.
“Tom, please? We’ve always gone, and I won’t go if you don’t.”
“Jess, go with Mom and Dad. I have homework.”
“It won’t be the same if you’re not there.” She climbed off the bed and leaned down so she could see his face. “I do miss you.”
Tom stopped typing. A moment went by, before he glanced up, and her green eyes looked through him. The corners of his mouth rose, as he sighed. “You win. I’ll go, but only because of Dad’s night off.”
Jessie’s face lit up. She hugged his shoulders and danced out the door, saying, “Almost time for dinner.”
With another sigh, Tom backed his wheelchair away from the desk. He knew Jessie’s insistence on going to this Halloween event was designed to get him out of the house.
Hearing the front door open, Tom rolled down the hall to greet his father, but his mother beat him to the door, still wearing a potholder mitt. She gave her husband a kiss.
“I don’t believe you got out of there, Dave. Reynolds must not have been around to insist you turn in reports.”
Mr. Lockhart removed his jacket, hat, and kevlar vest and hung them in the hall closet. “No, Reynolds was there.” He smirked. “When I told him I had to leave at five, he was kind enough to say I could finish my reports at home.” He ruffled Tom’s hair on his way to the bedroom.
Wheeling toward the kitchen, Tom met his sister coming out with plates and silverware. Jessie set the dishes in his lap, and he moved to the table.
As he finished the last place setting, his mother walked behind him carrying the roast on a platter. Not seeing her, Tom backed away from the table. She sidestepped to avoid spilling it on him, and the roast tumbled to the floor, splattering juices over her blouse, pants, and shoes.
“Shit!” She knelt down, grabbed the roast, and plopped it back on the platter. “Jessie, get some paper towels!”
“Mom, are you okay?” Tom hoped the juices weren’t hot enough to burn her.
His father arrived, having changed his clothes. “Marie, are you all right?”
She nodded, took the towels from Jessie, and mopped the spill. Her mouth was tight. “I’m fine.” She handed the platter with the roast to her husband. “Go rinse that, will you, Dave?”
“Sure. I’m a firm believer in the five-second rule,” he said on his way to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t see you.”
His mother’s smile looked forced. “I know. Don’t worry about it.”
Tom’s spirits fell. He was always in the way. No, rephrase that: his chair was always in the way.
His mother left to change clothes. Tom rolled to his place at the table, where he couldn’t get into trouble. His father came back with the roast, and Jessie brought the vegetables. By the time his mom returned, his dad had carved the roast, and everyone sat to eat.
“Dinner’s good, Mom,” Jessie said, ending their silence. “I got an A on my book report, and Karina has a crush on a boy in Mrs. Ellison’s class. He’s really cute.”
“Your A is great,” her mother said, brightening a bit, “but Karina should concentrate on her schoolwork, not boys, and don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Tom’s father held up a piece of beef on his fork. “The roast is good, Marie. The extra seasoning added by the wood floor is something to remember for next time, too.”
She shot him a look, ignoring his grin. “Back to talking about school—didn’t you have a test today, Tom?”
“Um hmm. I got an A-minus.”
Jessie stuck her tongue out. “I can’t believe you even passed the test, after you spent so long playing that online game last night.”
Tom smirked. “I would’ve had an A, except Mr. Armstrong asks questions about things that aren’t in the book.”
“Nothing wrong with an A-minus,” his father said. “It beats the grades I got in school.”
The talk continued until the plates were cleared away. Tom stayed out of the kitchen.
“Better get some warmer clothes,” his father said as he walked by, patting Tom’s shoulder. “We’ll be leaving soon.”
Activities that had been simple before the accident, like getting dressed and undressed, were harder now. Tom wheeled to his room and pulled a pair of jeans from his dresser. He removed his shoes and maneuvered his legs and bottom out of his shorts. Getting into the jeans was tougher while still in the chair, but he got it done in record time.
Tom stared at his reflection in the mirror on the closet door. He shook his head and snorted. I might look like a paraplegic, but because I have some feeling in my legs, I didn’t even get that right. Tom put his shoes on, grabbed a jacket, and wheeled out the door.
His dad drove the short distance to the zoo and parked in a handicapped space near the entrance. Tom watched little kids getting out of cars while his dad brought the wheelchair. Lion King costumes prevailed, but he also saw tigers, bears, and one little boy dressed as a parrot, flapping his wings wildly. Seeing the happy kids buoyed his spirits. He was glad Jessie had urged him to come.
It had been two years since his accident. Tom was used to people staring, whether he was in the wheelchair or using braces and crutches. His doctors and the rehab workers said he’d adapted well to his paralysis. Tom didn’t think he’d had much choice—he could either adapt or give up. Still, he wasn’t sure he’d ever completely accept having to ask for help with basic things, or seeing people’s expressions of pity. That was one of the reasons he hadn’t wanted to come tonight.
He and his family toured along the paths and watched the animals, including Jessie’s favorites—the monkeys and meerkats. Their last stop was the black jaguar Tom loved. As they passed its enclosure, he looked for the cat, but it wasn’t in sight.
Tom’s parents sat on a bench not far from the start of the children’s playground. The old carousel had been renovated recently, and its colors were bright again. Besides the usual horses, children could ride on zebras, lions, tigers, and more.
The area had been an amusement park before being replaced by the zoo. The carousel was the only thing left from the old park. It sat on a small island in the middle of a shallow creek and was accessed by a bridge that led from the path where they were now.
The carousel spun brightly, its calliope playing old circus songs. Despite the lights and happy music, something didn’t feel right. Tom got feelings like that sometimes, and he’d been right more than once. The last time was about a year ago, when he’d changed his mind about going to the corner store down the street. Later, he heard that a car had plowed through the front window, and a customer had gone to the hospital with a broken leg.
Tom’s father pointed to a group of parents chatting nearby. “Marie, let’s go say hi to the Hammonds.”
His mom stood and said, “Jessie, stay out of trouble. Tom, keep an eye on your sister.”
Jessie groaned, rolling her eyes. “Mom, I’m not a baby.”
“Then remember not to act like one.” They walked away, and Jessie plopped on the bench near Tom’s chair.
“Don’t be mad. You and Mom are always going at it. Let it go, and have some fun.”
Jessie shook her head and stalked away, crossing her arms with her back turned. “I hate it when she treats me like a little kid.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t do things like go to the zoo on Halloween.”
Jessie whirled, her face nearly as red as her hair. “I don’t even know why I like you! Maybe I don’t.” Looking back at the spinning carousel, she said, “I’m gonna go ride.”
An eerie yowl came from the big cat enclosures, and the hairs rose on the back of Tom’s neck. He had a sudden, sinking feeling. “Wait. How about we visit the giraffes instead?”
Jessie shook her head again. “No. I’m gonna act like the baby Mom says I am.”
“That’s dumb. Even grownups ride the carousel. Listen—let’s go see the otters or—”
“Never mind,” she said and returned to the bench.
Tom knew his feeling was probably nothing. He decided to convince Jessie to ride the carousel after all, just to change her mood.
She’d finally agreed, and then everything had fallen apart.
Tom lifted Jessie’s necklace from his nightstand and held it close to the lamp. The light shone through the dangling crystal, casting tiny, colored patterns on the wall. Tom thought about The Wizard of Oz, and Jessie going over the rainbow. His emotions suddenly swelled, and he squeezed his fists over his eyes to hold back the tears.
You can’t be gone. This family can’t take much more. I have to find you, Jessie. Where did you go?